The despised and revered Russian arms dealer is back in the spotlight
A Russian arms dealer dubbed the “Dealer of Death,” who once inspired a Hollywood film, is back in the headlines with speculation of a return to Moscow on a prisoner swap.
If 55-year-old Viktor Bout is indeed released in exchange for WBNA star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, as some published reports have suggested, it would add to the lore a charismatic arms dealer the US has known for over a year imprison decade.
Depending on the source, Bout is a swashbuckling businessman wrongfully jailed after an overly aggressive US stabbing operation, or an arms dealer whose sales have fueled some of the world’s worst conflicts.
The 2005 film Lord of War, directed by Nicolas Cage, was loosely based on Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who is said to have become famous for supplying weapons to civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients are said to include Charles Taylor of Liberia, longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and both sides of Angola’s civil war.
Shira A. Scheindlin, the former New York City federal judge who convicted Bout before returning to private practice, can be counted among those who would not be disappointed by Bout’s freedom on a prisoner swap.
“He has enough time for what he did in this case,” Scheindlin said in an interview, noting that Bout, a vegetarian and classical music fan who reportedly speaks six languages, has served over 11 years in US prisons .
He was convicted in 2011 on terrorism charges. Prosecutors said he was willing to sell up to $20 million worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down US helicopters. When they made the claim at his sentencing in 2012, Bout exclaimed, “That’s a lie!”
Bout has steadfastly maintained his innocence and said he was a legitimate businessman and had not sold any weapons. Since his first arrest, he has had a lot of support from senior Russian officials. A Russian MP testified as Bout fought Thailand’s extradition to the US
Last year, some of his paintings were exhibited at the Russian Civic Chamber, the body that oversees draft legislation and civil liberties.
Bout’s case fits well with Moscow’s narrative that Washington lies in wait to capture and repress innocent Russians on flimsy grounds.
“The resounding Bout case has evolved into a veritable American ‘hunt’ for Russian citizens around the world,” the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote last year.
Russia has increasingly labeled its case as a human rights issue. His wife and attorney claimed his health was deteriorating in the harsh prison environment, where foreigners are not always entitled to breaks that Americans could receive.
Last month, Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova said: “We very much hope that our compatriot Viktor Bout will return to his homeland.”
Moskalkova said the State Department, the Attorney General’s Office and the Justice Department were working to assess whether Bout could qualify for extradition to Russia to serve the remainder of his sentence.
“We are also constantly in dialogue to find a compromise to solve this problem,” she said.
Bout is now being held at a medium-security facility in Marion, Illinois and is scheduled for release in August 2029.
“If you asked me today, ‘Find 10 years a fair sentence,’ I would say ‘Yes,'” said Scheindlin.
“He got a tough deal,” the retired judge said, noting that US intelligence agents “put words in his mouth” to say he was aware Americans could die from guns he sold, to call for a terrorism augmentation that would enforce a long prison sentence, if not life imprisonment.
“The idea of selling him should not be unacceptable to our government. It wouldn’t be wrong to release him,” said Scheindlin.
Still, she said an even exchange of Griner for Bout would be “disturbing.” The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist was arrested at a Moscow airport in February, where police said she found cannabis oil in a vape canister in her luggage. While the US government has ruled her “unlawfully detained,” Griner pleaded guilty to drug possession charges at her July 7 trial in a Russian court. Her trial is scheduled to continue on Thursday.
Scheindlin said Griner was arrested for something that “wouldn’t be five minutes in jail.”
This feeling is shared by others. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said in a July 9 editorial that Bout had illegally traded billions of dollars worth of weapons “to feed wars around the world” and had “the blood of thousands on his hands,” while Griner “made a stupid mistake with a small amount of cannabis. She did no harm.”
Griner faces up to 10 years in prison. Her guilty plea was not unexpected by those who understand that similar moves usually precede a prisoner exchange. Whelan was arrested three years ago on espionage charges that the US said were fabricated and false.
In April 2012, Scheindlin imposed the mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, which Bout is now serving, but she said she only did so because it was necessary.
At the time, his defense attorney claimed the US vengefully attacked Bout because he was embarrassed that his companies were helping to ship goods to American military companies involved in the war in Iraq.
The deliveries came despite United Nations sanctions imposed on Bout since 2001 for his reputation as a notorious illegal arms dealer.
Prosecutors had asked Scheindlin to sentence him to life in prison, saying that if Bout was correct in describing himself as a businessman, “he was a businessman of the most dangerous sort.”
Bout was valued at about $6 billion in March 2008 when he was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand. US authorities tricked him into leaving Russia for a meeting he said was a deal to ship what prosecutors described as “a staggering arsenal of weapons — including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and sniper rifles — ammunition labeled 10 million rounds and five tons of plastic explosives.”
He was taken into custody at a luxury hotel in Bangkok after speaking to informants from the Drug Enforcement Agency who posed as officers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC. The group had been classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.
He was brought to the United States in November 2010.
The nickname “Merchant of Death” was bestowed on Bout by a senior minister in the British Foreign Office. The nickname was included in the US government’s indictment against Bout.
Neumeister reported from New York.